By Colette Davidson
Until its final print edition on 24 June 2021, Apple Daily was one of Hong Kong’s most popular Chinese-language newspapers, with a circulation of 86,000. But on 17 June, the Hong Kong authorities used the controversial national security law to freeze its assets – as well as those of founder Jimmy Lai – which forced the paper’s closure.
The demise of Apple Daily is just one of many challenges Mr Lai and newspaper staff have come up against since China passed the security law in June 2020, which opponents say severely limits freedom of speech and the right to protest in Hong Kong.
As a result of his continued push for democracy, Lai is implicated in six ongoing procedures related to unauthorized protest and colluding with foreign forces, and faces possible life imprisonment. He is currently standing trial – alongside seven colleagues – for his participation in a June 2020 candlelight vigil to commemorate the violent crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
But Lai’s run-ins with authorities began long before the national security law was passed. He has been an outspoken critic of Beijing’s control over Hong Kong and a high-profile supporter of the pro-democracy movement, making him an easy target for authorities.
In 2013, a group of masked men ambushed his home, threatening workers and burning thousands of copies of Apple Daily. One year later, anti-corruption officials raided Lai’s home over leaked documents that showed he had donated millions of dollars to pro-democracy groups ahead of the 2014 Occupy Movement protests.
Such incidents didn’t dampen his spirit. He had already proven himself a fighter early on, fleeing mainland China for Hong Kong at 12 years old, working as a child laborer in sweatshops and learning English.
In 1975, Lai raised enough money to buy bankrupt garment factory Comitex to produce sweaters for US retailers like J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward. He then founded Giordano, an Asia-wide clothing retailer, which boasted more than 8,000 employees in 30 countries.
After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Lai became an ardent critic of the Beijing government, and left the retail industry for media and politics. He founded Next Media and in 1995, launched Apple Daily, which soon became Hong Kong’s second most popular newspaper. In 2020, he launched an English version of the paper.
It wasn’t long before Apple Daily became a symbol of pro-democracy and public dissent. Its anti-government position resulted in advertising boycotts, as well as cyber hacks and attacks. On 10 August 2020, two months after the national security law was passed, Lai was arrested at his home for allegedly colluding with foreign forces – a crime under the new law.
Later that morning, 200 national security officers raided the offices of Apple Daily and seized over two dozen boxes of materials. HSBC froze Lai’s bank account.
On 12 August, Lai was allowed to go free on bail, but by 3 December, he was jailed once again on other charges related to his involvement in unauthorized protest [https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-57278062]. This past April, Apple Daily published a letter that Lai had sent to staff from his prison cell:
“Freedom of speech is a dangerous job,” he wrote. “Please be careful not to take risks. Your own safety is very important.”
Independent journalism in Hong Kong continues to face numerous challenges. Reporters Without Borders ranked it 80th on its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, citing Beijing’s national security law as a top threat for journalist safety.
As Lai and his seven colleagues await the judge’s decision on their trial over the Tiananmen vigil, the Apple Daily founder and newspaper staff are the deserved winners of this year’s Golden Pen of Freedom award for their courage to continue to report the truth amidst opposition. What Lai wrote in his April letter from prison shows his commitment to press freedom, despite all odds.
“A journalist’s responsibility [is] to uphold justice,” he wrote. “The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall.”
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